ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A suicide bomber killed at least 15 police recruits in Pakistan's Swat valley Sunday, the first major attack since the army announced it had taken the area back from the Taliban.
The bomber detonated himself at a training session for a new community police force intended to provide security for an area that had been overrun by the Taliban. Some 20 officers were also injured in the assault at a police facility in Swat's main city of Mingora. It came after authorities had relaxed restrictions on locals and lifted a curfew.
Pakistan's Taliban, closely linked to al-Qaida, no longer control Swat, which lies in the North West Frontier province, just 100 miles from Islamabad, but the blast showed that they remain a deadly menace.
Under U.S. pressure, Pakistan launched a military operation against the extremists in Swat in late April, forcing the evacuation of some two million residents. Last month, the army declared the Taliban had been defeated and sent residents back to the area, despite warnings by humanitarian aid groups it was not yet safe. The leadership of the Swat Taliban, including their commander Mullah Fazlullah, remain at large.
This was the second spectacular bombing since an aggressive new leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, took over Pakistan's Taliban movement, after a U.S. missile strike killed its previous head Baitullah Mehsud in the country's Waziristan tribal area. Last week, a suicide bomber struck Pakistani paramilitary soldiers guarding the border with Afghanistan, at the Torkham crossing point in the Khyber Pass, killing 22 troops.
The local administrator for Swat, Atifur Rehman, said it was unclear whether the bomber in Mingora had jumped over a wall to reach the recruits or had mingled among them, waiting for them to gather together to blow himself up.
"Security could be improved," said provincial information minister Iftikhar Hussain. "But suicide bombers are working on a self-destruct mission and are impossible to stop."
Area police chief Idress Khan admitted that "you could say that security was less than required." Local army commander for Mingora, Brigadier Tahir Hameed told reporters the death toll was as high as 18, adding: "We will keep chasing them till terrorism is eliminated."
The authorities are hurriedly recruiting a 6,000-strong community police force to bolster the regular contingent in a bid to prevent to the return of the Taliban. Attacks could scare potential recruits off, from a police force that fled the scene as the Taliban cemented their grip last year.
"Such a security lapse at this time is very unfortunate," said Mehmood Shah, an analyst who was formerly a senior government official. "Until the leadership (of the Swat Taliban) is eliminated, you can't say that the writ of the state has been restored."
Pakistan is now trying to convince the international community to provide hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to secure and rebuild Swat and provide education, health and other services to its population to counter the lure of the extremists. Next month, Pakistani leaders will press the case at a meeting of "Friends of Democratic Pakistan" forum in New York that President Barack Obama is scheduled to chair.
"We will not allow the enemies of the country to succeed in their evil designs," prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said in a statement.
The Taliban, pushed back in Swat and under attack in their heartland in the tribal area that borders Afghanistan, had promised further violence after last week's Khyber Pass bombing.
"We will continue these attacks," said Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban had said. "The victims of the suicide attack were all those supporting the United States. Anybody supporting the US is our enemy."
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